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Dale F. Eickelman
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


Although a major component of Oman's distinctiveness derives from Ibāḍī Islam, it is religiously, ethnically, and geographically complex. Its estimated population of 1.5 million in 2006 (18 percent noncitizens) includes an Ibāḍī population of 50 to 55 percent, 40 to 45 percent Sunnī, and less than 2 percent Shīʿah, although reliable estimates of population by sect are difficult to calculate.

Roughly the size of Arizona, Oman was relatively isolated and underdeveloped until 1970, when the current ruler, Sultan Qābūs ibn Saʿīd usurped his father, Saʿīd ibn Taymūr (r. 1932–1970) in a palace coup. Except for a few Sunnī bedouin tribes, the “inner Oman” of the northern interior (a string of oases separated from the coast by the imposing Ḥajar mountain range) remains almost exclusively Ibāḍī and Arab. In contrast, the towns and villages of the Bāṭinah coast, a string of oases 10 to 20 miles wide, are polyglot and multiethnic, with Arabs (Sunnī and Ibāḍī), Baluch (mostly Sunnī), Persians (mostly Sunnī and Shīʿī), and the Sindī- and Arabic-speaking Liwāṭīyah (who are Shīʿah) among the principal groups. The settled coastal population and the cattle-herding tribes of the mountainous interior of the southern province of Dhofar (Ḍufār) are almost exclusively Sunnī, as is the remote Musandam peninsula in the north.

From the mid-eighteenth through the mid-twentieth century, the major theme of Omani political and religious history was the conflict between dynastic rule by an Ibāḍī sultan and rule by an imam, a spiritual and temporal leader chosen by a consensus of Ibāḍī tribal notables and religious scholars.

Since the late eighteenth century, no sultan of the Āl Bū Saʿīd dynasty, which has ruled Oman continuously since 1744, has asserted the title of imam except for a brief interval from 1868 to 1871. From the mid-seventeenth century until Britain's ascendancy in the Persian Gulf in the early nineteenth century, Oman's domains included Zanzibar and the East African coast, and the energies of the Āl Bū Saʿīd dynasty were largely focused away from the Omani interior. By the late nineteenth century, however, the sultanate lost these possessions and entered an economic decline. On several occasions only British intervention prevented tribes from the interior acting in the name of the imam from overthrowing the dynasty.

In formal doctrine, the imamate of Oman's northern interior was the ideal Muslim state. In principle, the imām al-muslimīn (imam of the Muslims) ruled solely by Islamic law, legitimating actions according to precedents attributed to the prophet Muḥammad and his first two successors, Abū Bakr (d. 632) and ʿUmar (d. 634). In principle, imams were selected on the basis of their moral qualities, knowledge of the Qurʿān and Islamic tradition, and capacity for governing; in practice, their selection was the exclusive province of an oligarchic tribal elite. For example, the last imam on whom all tribes agreed, Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Khalīlī (r. 1920–1954), who sold his personal estates to sustain the imamate as its resources dwindled, was the twentieth of a long line of imams selected from his immediate tribal group.

From 1913 until 1955, the northern interior was one of the world's last theocracies, ruled by a succession of imams. This arrangement, which included cooperation between the sultan and the imam (whom the sultan recognized only as a tribal leader) ended in 1955 when Saʿīd ibn Taymūr, backed by British troops financed by an oil company, assumed direct control over the region. The imamate continued in exile in Saudi Arabia, and a Saudi-supported rebellion against dynastic rule (1957–1959) was suppressed with British support.

There is little overt sectarian friction in contemporary Oman, although the end of its isolation—in particular that of the Ibāḍīyah—brought about major changes in how Islam is expressed and practiced. Until 1970, Oman was almost devoid of modern educational facilities and Omanis who left the country for education were discouraged from returning. After 1970, the country's educational institutions developed rapidly and mass communications permeated even remote villages. Cell phones and Internet cafés are now pervasive throughout the country.

The exposure of large numbers of Omanis to schooling and mass media has altered the style and content of Islam in Oman. For example, in “inner” Oman, only the imam gave regular Friday sermons until 1955. Beginning in the early 1980s, however, younger, educated Ibāḍīs began to ask for sermons like those delivered in Sunnī and Shīʿī congregational mosques. The government cautiously accommodated this request, setting up a committee to “guide” sermon content. Likewise, mosques named after Sultan Qābūs were constructed in larger towns—in Nizwā on the site of the imam's former mosque—and institutes, now replaced by regular university courses at Sultan Qaboos University, were created to train religious teachers. Since 1970 Oman has also had an appointed mufti, or authoritative interpreter of religious doctrine. Although the post is formally unaffiliated with any sect, the first two muftis have been Ibāḍī. The mufti speaks on public occasions, issues fatwās (religious opinions), and represents the sultanate at international Islamic conferences.

The ruler's public addresses, like the content of Islamic studies in schools, scrupulously avoid sectarian issues. For instance, the ḥadīth (sayings of the Prophet) included in school texts are only those on which Sunnī, Ibāḍī, and Shīʿah agree. However, Oman's reentry into the wider Islamic world has led to a more explicit discussion of religious doctrine and practice than was the case when it was geographically and politically isolated. Thus, in late 1986, a leading Saudi religious scholar issued a fatwā accusing Shaykh Aḥmad ibn Ḥamad al-Khalīlī, Oman's mufti since 1975—and, by implication, all Ibāḍīyah—of kufr (heresy). In early 1987, al-Khalīlī replied in a dramatic two-hour television address, offering the first contemporary formulation of Ibāḍī doctrine in Oman. Another of the mufti’s talks, “Who is an Ibāḍī?” originated in reply to an Omani student in the United States requesting guidance after “Sunnī brothers” questioned whether the Ibāḍīyah should lead Muslim prayers. These examples suggest how higher education and modern conditions have led Omanis, like Muslims elsewhere, to reformulate doctrine and practice.

Since the 1970s, the Omani government has built an infrastructure of roads, schools, electricity, water, and medical facilities that have made it attractive even for younger, educated Omanis to remain in small and formerly remote villages, avoiding the population shift from the countryside to the capital that occurs in most other countries. The economic development of some sectors, including tourism, has been modestly successful, and the judiciary has been successfully modernized. Oman has been less successful in allowing political participation, and the media remain tightly controlled. A series of 300 arrests in May 1994 of a network of Omanis loosely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers and other arrests of equal scope in 2005 resulted in the eventual commutation of sentences for almost all concerned, but indicated the government's intolerance of any form of organization with political or religious implications that it cannot control. The Omani state has encouraged modernization, renewal, and transformation in all spheres except political participation, and this issue is emerging as its major challenge.

See also IBāḍī DYNASTY and IBāḍīYAH.


  • Eickelman, Christine. Women and Community in Oman. New York, 1984. Provides insight into women's religious practices in an oasis of   “inner” Oman.
  • Eickelman, Dale F.“From Theocracy to Monarchy: Authority and Legitimacy in Inner Oman, 1935–1957.”International Journal of Middle East Studies17 (February 1985): 3–24. Describes the practical workings of the twentieth-century imamate and its assimilation into sultanate rule.
  • Eickelman, Dale F.“Kings and People: Information and Authority in Oman, Qatar, and the Persian Gulf.” In Iran, Iraq, and the Arab Gulf States, edited by Joseph A. Kechichian, pp. 193–209. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
  • Kechichian, Joseph A.Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand, 1995. An authoritative examination of Oman's developing foreign policy that includes an account of the development of the modern state.
  • Khālīlī, Aḥmad ibn Ḥamad al-. Who Are the Ibadhis?Translated by A. H. al-Maamiry. Zanzibar, n.d. [c.1988]. Although available only through research libraries, this booklet stands out as the most authoritative expression in English of contemporary Ibāḍī belief in Oman.
  • Peterson, John E.Oman in the Twentieth Century: Political Foundations of an Emerging State. London: Croom Helm; New York, Barnes & Noble Books, 1978. This book remains the best overall introduction to Omani political history and religious development through the early 1970s.
  • Peterson, John E.Oman's Insurgencies: The Sultanate's Struggle for Supremacy. London: Saqi Books, 2007. A comprehensive account of how the sultanate has managed its internal and external military threats.
  • Solidarity International for Human Rights, “Unusual Human Rights Abuses in the Unusually Quiet Sultanate of Oman.”Washington, D.C., 1994. A hard-to-obtain but thoroughly documented report of the events leading to and following the 1994 arrests.
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